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Crunch Corner: The first perfect week of the season

Sure, it was only two games, but they won them both!

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch beat the team with the best record in the AHL, twice. That makes the Crunch the best team in the league now. Sorry, those are the rules.

Well, okay, unfortunately those aren’t the rules, but the two wins against the Hartford Wolf Pack make it one of the better weeks of the season for the Crunch. They played solid hockey for six straight periods despite an injury to one of their top forwards and a recall of another.

With their schedule settling in to a more routine nature, it will be up to the players to keep the strong play going. The roller coaster of days off followed by a run of games every other day is over. Hockey players crave routine and with the team heading to a normal schedule, there shouldn’t be an excuse of too much practice, not enough games.

While the Crunch are still fifth by points, they did move up a few spots in regards to points percentage (which is the way the AHL decides the standings since they play an uneven number of games). The North Division is still bunched up, but the Crunch have a few games in hand they can use to move up in the standings.

The Standings

Injuries

Boris Katchouk was injured in the first period of the game on Wednesday against Hartford and missed Saturday’s game. His timetable for return is unknown at this point. Coach Groulx described him as “day-to-day” following the win on Saturday.

There wasn’t an obvious injury in the game, but with about 9:15 to go in the first period, he had a kind of awkward collision with Patrick Newell along the boards. It wasn’t a big hit or anything, but Katchouk skated to the bench slightly hunched over and didn’t return to the game.

The injury comes at a particularly bad time for Katchouk, who was just starting to find his offense this season. The Crunch also lose one of their best two-way forwards for an undisclosed amount of time.

Coming and Going

Cory Conacher was recalled earlier in the week when Nikita Kucherov was hurt in a game against the St. Louis Blues. Conacher stayed up when it turned out that Steven Stamkos was also dealing with an injury. It’s likely that he will stay with the Lightning until everyone is recovered. In the meantime, it opens up a spot for the rookies (Jimmy Huntington and Peter Abbadonato) to earn a more permanent spot in Syracuse.

In somewhat surprising news, the Lightning organization swapped defensemen with the Buffalo Sabres as Matthew Spencer was traded for Devante Stephens. Stephens, 22 years-old, was a 5th round pick by the Sabres in 2015 out of White Rock, British Columbia. The trade reunites him with his Kelowna Rockets teammate Cal Foote.

Most of his professional career has been spent with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL and he has appeared in just 7 AHL games without recording a point. It may be a case of two stalled prospects that need a change of scenery. It could also be a case of the Lightning scouts seeing something they liked when they were scouting Foote and decided to pick him up as organizational depth.

Spencer, a second round pick by the Lightning, had spent most of his professional career shuffling between the AHL and the ECHL. While his play with the Crunch wasn’t outlandishly bad, it was never noticeable enough to garner him regular playing time. Perhaps in the Buffalo system he will have a chance to play his way onto Rochester’s roster a little easier.

The Games

Wednesday, November 20th at Hartford: 3-1 Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday, November 23rd vs. Hartford: 6-3 Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Players of the Week

Mitchell Stephens - 2 games, 2 goals, 1 assist. After picking up just one assist in his previous eight games, Stephens posted points in back-to-back games for just the second time this season. Hopefully it’s a sign that he’s getting back on track after a slow start to the season. The Crunch are going to need him to continue to put up points (as well as play his usual solid defense) if they want to claw their way back to the top.

Dennis Yan - 2 games, 2 goals, 1 assist. Could this be the breakout season we’ve been waiting to see from Yan for the last couple of years? He’s stayed healthy this season and, more importantly, played consistently throughout the season so far. He’s playing top line minutes and producing, something that hasn’t always been the case. His 9 points (5 goals, 4 assists) through 17 games is almost halfway to his career high (23 points in 2017-18).

Thoughts

Balanced scoring

Offense hasn’t been an issue for the Crunch. While they may not be lighting the lamp the way they were last season, they are still scoring at a respectable pace. Through 18 games, they are averaging 3.33 goals per game, which is good for 8th in the AHL.

Unlike last season where they had Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet pulling a lot of the weight, they’ve had more of a team approach to scoring. Barre-Boulet leads with 8 goals, but they have seven players with at least 4, and thirteen players with at least 2 goals or more. Things have definitely spread out a bit.

While Barre-Boulet (5 of 8 goals) has done most of his damage on the power play, the rest of the team is doing better at scoring at even strength. Yan has 5 goals with only 1 coming on the power play, while Danick Martel has 1 power play goal and 6 even strength goals.

That’s a good sign for the Crunch moving forward. Last week we mentioned that they had been relying heavily on power play goals for offense, but among the nine goals they scored against Hartford, only two were with the man advantage. Five of the goals, including all three in the win on Wednesday, were at even strength.

They also had five different players score goals against Hartford. That’s a pretty solid mix considering one of their top forwards, Conacher, was with Tampa Bay for both games and another, Katchouk, only played one period. That’s the kind of depth the Crunch need to wear other teams out.

One of those players that scored was Ross Colton. The second year center finally snapped a ten-game goalless streak. He had been playing well over that stretch, but just hadn’t been able to find the back of the net.

When they are playing well, they are able to roll four lines and all four have the ability to put the puck in the net. In Coach Groulx’s system, there is no such thing as a “checking line” in the traditional sense. There may be one that is slightly better at preventing goals, but it still has the balance to score as well.

The AHL scoring leaders list may be devoid of Syracuse players right now, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Crunch. Spreading the offense out not only helps them out in the regular season, but it is also an absolute must for the playoffs. Single line teams don’t usually advance very far in the postseason.

Upcoming Schedule

After a run of games outside of the division, the Crunch have a week full of Northern Division adversaries. They will also have the chance to gain on two teams (Laval and Utica) that have more points than they do. As the month draws to a close, it’s a perfect opportunity for Syracuse to start moving up the divisional ranks.

Wednesday, November 27th at Utica Comets, 7:00pm

Friday, November 29th vs. Laval Rocket, 7:00pm

Saturday, November 30th at Binghamton Devils, 7:05pm